San Ignacio de Moxos
Folklore Capital of Beni - Bolivia

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San Ignacio de Moxos (not to be confused with San Ignacio de Velasco another Jesuit mission town) was founded on the 1st of November, 1689 by two Catholic priests named Antonio Orellana and Juan de Espejo. It is the third Jesuit mission founded in the Moxos region. Father Orellana spent seven years with the local indigenous tribes (the Punuanas, Chamucos, Areboconos, Tariboconos, Churmanes and Susirionos) learning all he could about them before deciding the time was right to establish a mission there which would group them all.

Grouping these very distinct tribes had great effects on their native traditions and customs. Many of their native languages were completely lost as over the years a new dialect formed from a combination of their languages. Today, when asked what language they speak, not all but many will answer “Ignaciano”.

It was the first mission town established West of the Mamoré River. Orellana chose Ichasawase as the original location. However flooding and outbreaks of European sicknesses such as smallpox forced them to move the town about 12 miles away to its present location in 1743. Today it is the capital of the province of Moxos, one of the 8 provinces of the Department of Beni and is located near Lake Isiboro. Currently it has a population of about 15,000 – it’s just about the same as Rurrenabaque.

San Ignacio’s main income generating activity is cattle ranching and it is also an important center of commerce in this department. In addition, tourism is on the rise especially since the promotion of the National and International Baroque Music Festivals. Nearby at the Isireri Lagoon, about 15 kilometers northwest of town, locals and tourists spend time relaxing and swimming. Locals fish for a living. There is an interesting legend associated with this lagoon. Read the legend of Isireri lagoon.

San Ignacio’s heritage is tangible and the town has requested the government name San Ignacio as a national heritage site. You can see this in its church which has been reconstructed following its original mission architecture. It also has a Museo de Arte Sacro (Museum of Religious Art), a Baroque Music Archive, a School of Music and Baroque Choir, the Cabildo Indigenal (local indigenous council) and several Centros Artesanales (handcraft centers where various types of handcrafts are elaborated – weavings, carvings, pottery, and more.) Another wonderful time to visit San Ignacio is Easter week (Semana Santa) during which you can see many colorful processions.

San Ignacio de Moxos’ greatest attraction is the Ichapekene Piesta (July 30-August 2). These festivities depict how Jesuit religious traditions combined with indigenous Moxos traditions. During the festival you can see how the “macheteros” dance, watch the achus (the grandfathers) and their “fireworks”, and see the devout abadesas. During this festival dancers put on their best costumes and dance in processions of about thirty dance troups for a period of four days in honor of their Patron Saint San Ignacio (of whom a statue is periodically paraded through the streets). Because it ends on August 2nd and Bolivia’s Independence day is August 6th, many simply continue the festivities throughout an entire week.

This quaint town is rich in culture and San Ignacio de Moxos was given the title “Folkloric Capital of Beni” in 1975 and “Spiritual Capital of the Southern Cone Mission Towns” in 1997. Try some “chicha de camote” during this festival. It’s the only time of year this traditional (non-alcoholic) drink is served! Make reservations at least 4 months in advance. By 3 months prior, all lodging is booked!

The entire town still preserves its “mission” architecture and this is evident if you visit its 260-year old cathedral on the main square (restored by architect Hans Roth). It houses hundreds of original music scores written by the Jesuit priests who taught the local inhabitants how to fashion and carve traditional instruments of the time (baroque-style violins and flutes) and to play baroque music. Ignacianos are well-known for their beautiful carpentry and carvings.

They also created amazing music schools where they formed choirs. The San Ignacio Escuela de Música (music school) is well-known and was brought back to life in 1994 by a Spanish nun who organized support from UNESCO and other agencies and NGOs to support this enterprise. Today the music school has several hundred students! It now has a modern concert hall and theater and the San Ignacio orchestra has travelled all over South America and Europe.

Inside the church you can also see the Museum of Religious Art. Next to the church you can visit the Archivo de Música Misional (the Archive of Missions Music scores) which is working hard to preserve these fragile documents. You can also see antique instruments here.

It takes about 30 minutes to fly from Beni's capital city of Trinidad to San Ignacio de Moxos in one of the local aerotaxis, which cost between $80 and $100 round trip. During the flight if you look down toward the Earth you can see the complex system of channels, lagoons and hills the Moxos constructed by hand thousands of years ago. You can also see the many rivers and dense forests of the region.

Located just 88 kilometers West of Trinidad, you can also travel by road to San Ignacio de Moxos during the dry season; however, during the rainy season it is usually impassible. The trip by road from Trinidad takes between 3-4 hours and there are three rivers to cross: the Ibare, the Mamoré and the Tiamuchi. It is not a paved road and vehicles frequently have to stop for several minutes as huge herds of cattle cross the road.

Most locals take a “camion” which is a large truck adapted as a passenger transport vehicle. Long planks of wood are placed across the back bed of the bus. Passengers sit along the planks with their luggage beneath them near their feet. During the rainy season a plastic tarp may be placed over the top; otherwise it is open to the sun. Rickety wooden barges called “pontones (pontoons)” ferry buses, cars and trucks across the rivers.

It’s a rather grueling (but not so long) trip and may be worthwhile if you are the type to likes to see both your destination and “everything in between”.

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